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With: Isabelle Huppert, Jacques Dutronc, Anna Mouglalis, Rodolphe Pauly, Michel Robin
Written by: Claude Chabrol, Caroline Eliacheff, based on "The Chocolate Cobweb" by Charlotte Armstrong
Directed by: Claude Chabrol
MPAA Rating: Unrated
Language: French with English subtitles
Running Time: 99
Date: 08/02/2000

Merci pour le chocolat (2000)

3 1/2 Stars (out of 4)

One Flew Over the Cocoa's Nest

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

French New Wave fans who struggled through Jean-Luc Godard's recent In Praise of Love will be happy to take in Claude Chabrol's latest film, Merci pour le chocolat, which opens today at the Opera Plaza and at the Rafael Film Center.

It's far smoother and easier to digest than Godard. Heck, it's even entertaining!

Chabrol, often considered the least of the New Wavers due to his insistence on making suspense films in the mold of Hitchcock and Lang, has for 40 years faithfully delivered one thriller after another. While some fall apart, and he occasionally strays into more dreary genres (for example, the icy 1991 Madame Bovary), overall he's one of the most dependable suspense men in movies.

Merci pour le chocolat falls somewhere in the middle of his filmography. It's not as solid as, say, Le Boucher (1969) or La Ceremonie (1995), but it's better than the recent The Color of Lies, which never was released in San Francisco.

Chabrol based this film on an American novel, The Chocolate Cobweb, by Charlotte Armstrong. It's the second time he's taken on one of her works (the first was 1970's La Rupture).

In her sixth film for Chabrol, the reliable Isabelle Huppert stars as Marie-Claire, a chocolate magnate and the second wife of an accomplished but hangdog pianist, André Polonski (Jacques Dutronc).

The film begins with an attractive young, up and-coming pianist Jeanne Pollet (Anna Mouglalis), who hears for the first time that, after her birth, she and another baby nearly were mixed up at the hospital, and that her "father" almost was Polonski. But even though her mother Louise (Brigitte Catillon) says that everyone went home with the correct child, but she's not all that convincing.

Unable to control her curiosity, Jeanne visits the Polonski house.

Andre takes an immediate liking to the girl, remembering how he kissed her that day in the hospital. He agrees to give her piano lessons, to undo all those nasty habits brought on by inferior instructors.

We also meet Andre's son, the brooding Guillaume (Rodolphe Pauly), who didn't inherit his father's musical talent.

There's also Marie-Claire, who makes her special thick, creamy hot chocolate for her family, and occasionally likes to slip in sleeping powder, unbeknownst to anyone. Eventually the story of how Andre's first wife (and Guillaume's mother) died comes to light: She fell asleep at the wheel.

It's true that not everything in Merci pour le chocolat makes perfect sense, and Marie-Claire's motive never comes across. Chabrol cares more about mood and atmosphere than he does about logical plots. When the film wraps up, you have the sense that you've been spooked, even though you may not know why.

I credit Huppert as much as Chabrol for the film's success. Her distant expression has the dual effect of luring you in and making you uneasy. She constantly tricks the other characters into feeling cozy so she can strike again, and we fall right in with them.

Finally, and delightfully, some things never change. Forty years after he was a film critic for Cahiers du Cinema, Chabrol still can't help but pay tribute to his favorite films. At one point, after she's (purposely?) burned Guillaume's foot with a pot of scalding water, Marie-Claire brings videos to watch: Fritz Lang's Secret Beyond the Door (1948) and Jean Renoir's La Nuit du carrefour (1932) -- two crime films of the highest degree.

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